War in Our Time

Munich: The Price of Peace

by Telford Taylor
Doubleday, 1,104 pp., $17.50

Neville Chamberlain
Neville Chamberlain; drawing by David Levine

The conference at Munich which led to the partition of Czechoslovakia was held over forty years ago on September 30, 1938. To judge from the books that still appear about it and the passionate feelings it evokes, the Munich conference was as significant as the congress of Vienna or the Paris peace conference of 1919. At first sight this is strange. As Telford Taylor rightly remarks, the conference settled nothing: its decisions had already been made in advance. “Munich” was above all a symbol. A symbol of appeasement for some, a symbol of betrayal and weakness for others.

In a wider sense the Munich conference was the last time when Europe appeared as the center of the world. The United States stood aside; Soviet Russia was excluded; and the four Great Powers—France, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy—imagined they were speaking for mankind. Munich marked the emergence of Greater Germany as the dominant power in Europe. Within seven years all was shattered. Germany was prostrate and partitioned; the other European Great Powers were diminished; Soviet Russia and the United States had become the masters of the world.

Telford Taylor’s book is the most formidable and scholarly yet written about Munich. More than that, it surveys the entire course of European diplomacy from the peace conference of 1919 up to Munich and after. The sources used are unrivaled in extent. When I wrote my Origins of the Second World War nearly twenty years ago I had to rely largely on printed records such as selections of British and German documents. Telford Taylor, like other contemporary scholars, has had a free run of the British Cabinet papers, the Chiefs of Staff’s reports, and comparable records from France, Germany, and, to some extent, Italy. The result is a book of 1,104 pages, hard going but none too long. No detail is neglected—for instance whether Hitler wore an armband on his left or his right arm. The most minor participants are meticulously catalogued. On a larger field the information about military affairs is particularly strong. We learn precisely what forces the Germans mobilized at the time of the Austrian and Czech crises and what the French could set against them. We can follow the arguments of the British Chiefs of Staff and the doubts some German generals expressed though to no great effect. This is more than a year-by-year, it is almost a day-by-day account.

Telford Taylor begins with the Munich conference itself. Since, as he says, the conference produced nothing new, this is an opportunity for a virtuoso “I was there” performance such as some historians favor. There is nothing missing except the curious fact that, when the participants came to sign their agreement, there was no ink in the glittering inkstand. Then we go back to the beginning. First a quick run from the Paris peace conference to the German reoccupation of the Rhineland.…

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